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Michael Coveney: Elaine Stritch - 'the quintessence of Broadway musical theatre'

The Broadway legend died yesterday aged 89

Elaine Stritch
© David Gordon

Elaine Stritch, who has died at home in Michigan, aged 89, was the quintessence of Broadway musical theatre in its roughest, busiest and most creative period, from the acclaimed 1952 Pal Joey revival - she had understudied Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, but Merman, wisely, was never off - through Stephen Sondheim, notably Company in 1970.

That show defined her stardom for ever in the climactic show-stopper of a middle-aged boozer, "The Ladies Who Lunch." I saw Company, and her in it, three times – she was the only Broadway cast import - when it came to London at the Her Majesty's in 1972. "Rise," she implored us, and we did, long before standing ovations were a knee-jerk symptom of everyday audience behaviour.

Her bristling place in lore and legend was fixed in her brilliant Broadway solo show, a veritable Broadway songbook, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, which was billed as "constructed by [the New Yorker critic] John Lahr" and "re-constructed by Elaine Stritch." The show played London, unforgettably, in 2008: her opening line was, "Well, as the prostitute once said, it's not the work, it's the stairs".

That credit indicates her sardonic prickliness, a creative strand in her artistry. It was slightly sad, therefore, to see her playing a too-sedated and tentative version of the old countess in Trevor Nunn's Menier Chocolate Factory production of A Little Night Music when it hopped over to Broadway four years ago.

We remember her best here in Company (though she made her London debut in 1962, in Noël Coward's Sail Away at the Savoy, putting another indelible mark on the song "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?") and, in 1973, in Tennessee Williams's Small Craft Warnings at the Hampstead Theatre Club (as it then was), transferring to the Comedy (now the Harold Pinter), in a cast that included Frances de la Tour.

She was so wonderful as Williams's barstool regular that London Weekend Television created a sitcom series for her, Bill MacIlwraith's Two's Company (1975-9), in which she played an imperious New York writer, Dorothy McNab, co-habiting chastely but uneasily with her butler, devastatingly well played by Donald Sinden; this was a brilliantly creative re-spinning of the Jeeves and Wooster syndrome.

During that period, she lived in the Savoy Hotel with her husband, the American actor John Bay, also in Small Craft Warnings. They had no children, and she is going to be buried, reports the New York Times, near him in Chicago. If she hadn't been so remarkable a one-off, you'd say that Stritchie (as Coward called her) was the last of a line. She was, and will remain, genuine and inimitable Broadway royalty.

Read further tributes to Elaine Stritch on TheaterMania


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